Stop the Noiz

Netbook or Smartphone: What's Your Best Bet?

Frank Fox - 2009.02.04 - Tip Jar

How do you decide between two different technology choices?

You find out whom they were designed for and determine which one fits your needs.

We've heard about the similarity between netbooks and the iPhone, but which is right for you?


Let's start off by looking at the netbook.

The netbook is designed around two main goals, cost and size. Of the two, being cheap is more important. The netbook evolved out of the "one laptop per child" project. That project tried to build a laptop for $100 so that many of them could be given to children in poor countries. Making it small was a side effect of lower costs, but as a product targeted to children, small was not a liability.

In effect, a netbook is the modern equivalent of Apple's failed eMate project. Priced at $800 it was cheaper than the laptops of the time but still too expensive for the reduced features. Apple never did reach high market penetration. The lower price of the netbook means that it can succeed where the eMate failed.

Why does price matter so much? Because netbooks are less, in every way, than their bigger notebook cousins. They have smaller screens, compact keyboards, slower processors, less expansion (or none), and less powerful graphics cards. With less, you expect to pay less.

The problem has always been that software requirements pushed people to buy the next faster, more powerful computer, making it hard to be satisfied with less.

Since netbooks are in no way a performance upgrade, why are they selling?

The software rat race ended when the manufacturers switched to Linux. Linux doesn't have the overhead that Vista requires. Linux can be customized to run better with less, and it didn't need Microsoft support or costly license to make it happen. Hardware manufacturers were free to tweak Linux to work well with the hardware as is.

So the computer designed for children is finding it's way into the market for adults because the price and the software make sense for light duty use. We don't need a supercomputer to surf the Web or write a memo or email.

This leaves the reduced screen size and keyboards as the main limits to netbook market penetration.


In this same market for light duty computer use (web browsing, memos, and email) are the smartphones. Here the iPhone, Blackberry, and G1 Android are the current top contenders. These are all devices build for adults, so they are marketed differently and perceived differently. While the BlackBerry came first, it is the iPhone that showed what this market segment is capable of.

The iPhone was built to be a platform - a platform it shares with the iPod touch. It was given most of a full-fledged modern OS (a version of OS X) with a tailored HMI (human machine interface), a new set of gestures to operate with, and software developer tools to access all these unique features.

It is the App Store that sets the iPhone apart from the netbook market.

The netbook is more of the same old computing we are used to, just smaller and for less money. The iPhone is a whole new book, with new pages being written as new applications are released. Can you run these applications on your laptop? Not really, and even if you could, many of them would make no sense on a larger screen tied to a bigger device.

Is anyone writing applications targeted only at the netbook market? No. What's the point of doing that?

The smartphone is more mobile than even the smallest netbook. It is the difference between a few ounces for an iPhone and around 2 pounds for a netbook. It is the difference between fitting into a pocket for a smartphone and fitting in a small bag for the netbook. So while the netbooks are small and portable, they weren't specifically designed for super portability like a cell phone is.

Now we can start to see were these devices are geared for different needs. In choosing which is right for you, pick the description that fits you the best.

  • Buying it for a child to do homework assignments - Netbook
  • Buying a combination device phone/camera/music player - Smartphone
  • Buying a second (or even third) computer for convenience:
    • Do you want to take it everywhere you go - Smartphone
    • Do you want something light but easy to type on - Netbook
  • Buying as a replacement computer and you have existing software - Netbook with XP Home
  • You already have an old laptop - buy a fresh battery and save your money

Getting the device that fits your needs is easy once you understand what your needs really are: My wife has an iPhone, and she loves it. I am happy using a MacBook, because I've got big hands and don't make a lot of phone calls. I would consider a netbook for my kids to do their homework on. Maybe we'll get one for them when they hit high school. LEM

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